Back in the 1980s, AIDS activists employed this technique of “birdogging” (going to the public appearance of a target and trying to get him or her to commit to a new policy) to put the HIV/AIDS crisis on the map. We were preparing to use the same strategy. Now, however, our demand was not limited to just domestic policy, but rather has evolved, as the global epidemic has evolved, to demand that our foreign policy has to act on the international HIV/AIDS crisis. More specifically, in this particular instance, our goal was targeted at Presidential hopefuls Obama and Edwards to get them to commit to $50 billion dollars over the next 5 years to fight AIDS, a funding level that experts agree will be needed to turn the tide of the AIDS epidemic.

Obama spoke first and during a pause in his speech we all stood up with the signs and chanted, “Beat the GOP on AIDS and HIV, $50 billion now!” After a few repetitions, he signaled for us to sit back down, which we did; he told the audience to clap for us, which they did. He then commended our effort; and proceeded to talk about HIV/AIDS in his speech. After his speech, we rushed for the “handshake” line to seize the opportunity to shake his hand and go one step further: a firm commitment. We asked if he would support $50 billion over the next 5 years for HIV/AIDS; he stated that he had already confirmed his support for more HIV/AIDS funding, but would not give a definitive answer on our specific demand. Mission Unaccomplished.

John Edwards spoke next, and we deployed almost exactly the same strategy with him; he proved enormously receptive to us and afterwards in the handshake line, affirmed a couple of times that yes, he would support $50 billion over the next five years for HIV/AIDS. And so John Edwards became the second of seventeen Democratic and Republican candidates to say that he would support the money, and the only top tier one to do so (Senator Joe Biden has also committed to funding the $50 billion needed). Mission Accomplished (well, for that day at least).

The ’08 Stop AIDS Platform

The ’08 Stop AIDS Platform is something that we must all take heed of: our next President must do more to stop the HIV/AIDS crisis. This conviction is what impelled this group of 15 youth AIDS activists to attend the Take Back America Conference in Washington, D.C. earlier this summer and “birddog” Barack Obama and John Edwards.

In 2005, at the G8 Summit in Gleneagles, Scotland, the leaders of the world’s most powerful countries promised Universal Access to AIDS Treatment by 2010. However, as of today, no concrete plans to make this goal actually come to fruition have been developed. As global leaders stall at their commitment, everyday another 15,000 people become infected with HIV and 8,200 people die from the disease. The rhetoric spoken at the G8 Summit must turn into action – and it is up to us to make our next president step up and keep our share of the promise for treatment access. The ’08 Stop AIDS Platform, written by a coalition of nearly a dozen US organizations in consultation with people in impoverished countries and supported by over 127 national and international organizations, is based on the premise that our politicians need to keep their promise and devise and implement a plan so treatment access for the millions of people affected by HIV/AIDS becomes a reality. The platform states:

“More than 40 million are living with HIV worldwide, and each year more than three million people die from AIDS. By 2010, there will be as many as 20 million children orphaned by AIDS. The infection rates in some impoverished countries are greater than 33%, and the impact of AIDS poses major humanitarian challenge to the United States. Within the United States, HIV/AIDS is disproportionately affecting people of color, and prevention and treatment are still underfunded; strong leadership is needed to defeat the epidemic. Global health diplomacy provides one key opportunity to renew internationally our ties to the world community. America’s place in history will be determined by how well we respond to this still-expanding crisis at home and abroad.”

The ’08 Stop AIDS Platform calls for a new vision on U.S. HIV/AIDS policy, a chief component of which is to provide $50 billion by 2013 to fight HIV/AIDS, and to double the number of people on treatment supported by the United States from two million to four million. This number represents one-third of the people living with AIDS and in immediate need of treatment – as the U.S. represents one-third of the world’s wealth, it follows that we should be responsible for providing treatment for one-third of the people who need it.

Our Government’s Policies

If our next president committed to this platform, it would represent a markedly different path for AIDS funding than the one the United States is currently on. Our signs read, “Beat the GOP on AIDS and HIV” because our targets at that moment belonged to the Democratic Party. Our message, however, is the same to all of the candidates, regardless of political party: the current U.S. policies toward HIV/AIDS are woefully inadequate. This is especially the case with President Bush’s recent announcement of to reauthorize PEPFAR (President’s Emergency Plan for AIDS Relief), which allocates $30 billion over the next 5 years for HIV/AIDS funding. While at face value this may seem like a substantial commitment – and indeed, it is being lauded by some as a doubling of the $15 billion in the original PEPFAR – to hold that view is to possess a misunderstanding of the facts.

The original PEPFAR, announced in 2003, aimed to prevent 7 million new infections and treat 2 million people (1/3 of those in need of treatment). The $15 billion has been given in increasing increments each year – in 2003 only $1.2 billion dollars was given to global AIDS, but this year Bush has requested $5.8 billion and Congress is expected to appropriate $6 billion. However, in the new PEPFAR announcement, funding will essentially be flat-lined, giving around $6 billion every year, and leaving no room for needed scale-up. Moreover, the program aims to treat 2.5 million people by 2013. Remember: by the end of 2008 under the old PEPFAR, we aim to treat 2 million. Yet by 2013, under the new PEPFAR, the goal is 2.5 million; this number simply does not keep up with the projected rate of infections. Unfortunately, the number of people in need of treatment is only increasing, and UNAIDS projects that over 10 million people will be in need of treatment by 2010. If the US is to keep to our commitment of treating 1/3 of those in need and to fighting this pandemic, then the amount of money that we give must increase; the US share must increase to $50 billion.

The Future

The original PEPFAR announcement came in large part as a result of pressure from AIDS activists demanding that more be done to combat HIV/AIDS. Right now it is imperative to the lives of millions of people that HIV/AIDS become an important issue in the next election. More importantly, though, it is crucial that the next president not just talk about AIDS but commit to a specific, comprehensive plan to fight AIDS. As such, it is vital to make sure that all of the candidates know that one of the key pieces needed to fight AIDS is adequate funding: $50 billion dollars over the next 5 years. HIV/AIDS is a crisis of our time, and we must stand up and address it. So pay attention to what the candidates are saying about HIV/AIDS – and remember that you can use your voice to demand change.

Caiti Schroering is a Junior at Denison University in Granville, Ohio. She has been an active member of the Student Global AIDS Campaign since her freshman year of college.

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